Elementary school apologizes for ‘insensitive’ Underground Railroad activity

A Virginia elementary school apologized for an "insensitive" Underground Railroad activity that included having students pretending to be slaves.

Madison’s Trust Elementary School in Ashburn, Va., created a game during Black History Month for third, fourth and fifth graders, The Loudon Times-Mirror reported.

The physical education activity involved students pretending to be runaway slaves while working in groups to get through an obstacle course representing the Underground Railroad.

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Michelle Thomas, president of the Loudoun NAACP chapter, told the newspaper that one African-American child in the class was designated as a slave during the activity.

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“Obviously, he’s the only one that’s black, he’s the only one that could have ever been related to someone who used to be a slave, and imagine him carrying that stigma all through school,” Thomas said.

Thomas added that the student might not be the only black person in the class but was among a small group of African-American students who participated in the activity, the outlet noted. 

Madison Trust’s Principal David Steward apologized in a Feb. 12 email to parents.

“I extend my sincerest apology to our students and school community,” he wrote in an email obtained by The Washington Post. “This is contradictory to our overall goals of empathy, affirmation, and creating a culturally responsive learning environment for all.”

Officials cited privacy laws and declined to say whether the teacher or teachers involved in the game will be disciplined, the Post reported.

The school is reportedly working with parents and employees to develop a commission or task force on equity and cultural responsiveness.

Thomas told the Times-Mirror that she has heard of several complaints from parents around this time of the year relating to Black History Month.

Sixth-grade students once role-played an exercise where they had to choose between being a slave, sharecropper or landowner, Thomas said.

“Loudoun County has a history of miseducating kids, number one, and perpetrating racist things amongst our students. This is not the first one. This is the first one of many. This is the most egregious, and the timing is incredible,” Thomas said.

The Underground Railroad game came to light following the blackface scandals in Virginia involving Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Attorney General Mark Herring (D).

Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page depicted one man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

Northam initially acknowledged appearing in the photo and apologized. The governor later reversed course and said he did not believe he was in the photo, though he acknowledged that he wore blackface in one instance at a dance competition.

State Attorney General Mark Herring (D), the second in line to the governorship, admitted that he, too, wore blackface to a party while he was an undergraduate in college.

Thomas told the Times-Mirror that Herring grew up in Loudoun County Public Schools.

“[Herring] graduated from Loudoun Valley, so of course he wouldn’t know what he was doing, going up, dressing as blackface, because blackface is never discussed in the curriculum. When we discuss Jim Crow, it doesn’t come up," she said. “The insensitivity is astronomical. We are in a racism crisis in Virginia, and the school is where it starts."